By Hrach Melkumian
The first group of Armenian sappers and other landmine experts graduated from a U.S.-funded training center near Yerevan on Wednesday and are due to start demining operations in northeastern Armenia next month.
Fifty-six deminers, six sniffer dog handlers, four medics and nine landmine impact specialists received their training certificates at a ceremony in Echmiadzin attended by senior Armenian military officials and U.S. diplomats.
The first training course started shortly after the opening in March of the Echmiadzin-based Armenian Humanitarian Demining Center as part of a $4.4 million program launched by the U.S. State Department last year. Under an agreement between the U.S. and Armenian governments the program will continue through 2004.
"We will continue to involve the strong support of the government of the United States which places a very high priority on humanitarian demining around the world," the U.S. ambassador to Armenia, John Ordway, said in a welcoming speech. "We will train additional people and provide additional equipment."
"In fact, it is one of the fastest programs we ever got up and running anywhere around the world where we have done this type of work," Ordway added.
The training, involving modern mine-detecting equipment and sniffer dogs, has been conducted by a team of 19 U.S. military officers as well as civilian specialists from RONCO, a U.S. demining firm. Among them were nine Special Forces servicemen. The commander of the U.S. training team, Captain Peter Vutera, heaped praise on his Armenian students.
"They are very intelligent, very high-quality soldiers. I've been extremely impressed with their performance over the last two months," Vutera told reporters.
Most of the Armenian trainees are professional army officers. There are also younger army conscripts among the graduates. Some of them demonstrated their newly learned skills at the graduation ceremony, staging mock operations in full demining gear.
Officials said the first group of trained sappers will be sent next month to the northeastern province of Tavush which is littered with thousands of anti-personnel mines like many other areas along the long Armenian-Azerbaijani border. According to government estimates, as much as 11,000 hectares of agricultural land in Armenia remain mined eight years after the end of the Nagorno-Karabakh war.
Training of the second group of Armenian military personnel is scheduled to start this winter and end by May 2003.
In a statement released on Tuesday, the U.S. embassy in Yerevan described the mine-clearing scheme as a "demonstration of the United States' strong commitment to Armenia and its citizens."
"This is just one of the elements of U.S.-Armenian military-to-military cooperation, and we will be working to accelerate and implement the other programs that we have begun to plan together over the next few months," Ordway said.
The ambassador referred to $4.3 million in separate military assistance to Armenia approved by the U.S. Congress last November. That money will mostly be spent on the upgrading of Armenia's military communication facilities. The U.S. embassy's military attaché, Lieutenant-Colonel Eric von Tersch, told RFE/RL last week that apart from supplying modern communications equipment, the Americans will help the Armenian army set up a "communications school" for its officers.
Congress is expected to earmark another $4 million worth of military aid to Yerevan for the next financial year.